“Sometimes you see the world in black and white,” my former therapist L said to me, in our last session together way back in May of 2017. We had already reviewed the ways I had grown in our two years of seeing each other, and he stated this black and white comment as an area for me to maybe explore further after our final session. At the time, I thought something like hm, that’s interesting. It’s not that I disregarded L’s feedback – in fact, I valued it quite highly – it’s just that this one comment didn’t resonate much with me in that final session four years ago.
Looking back now, I can see how my black and white thinking manifested when I entered my doctorate program at the age of 22. At that time, I remember thinking to myself: oh wow, this program has multiple people of color, thank goodness and feeling that this representation would guarantee some level of safety for me and my fellow marginalized students. Without going into depth for the sake of anonymity and my own safety, I will say that I have observed how even professors of color can gaslight, neglect, and/or try to exert dominance over students of color. A well-renowned Black feminist scholar alludes to this dynamic in her blog post here as well.
I feel like I have learned a similar lesson with men. Several years ago, I would instantaneously idealize certain men based on characteristics I felt attracted to. Like, if a guy worked in a job related to social justice, or if he used words like “empathy” or “emotions” on his dating app profile, I would assume that he also knows how to practice healthy relationship behaviors (e.g., active listening, taking accountability for his actions). Even though it feels a bit embarrassing to write about this idealization now, I’m practicing self-compassion because both with men and with professors, I think it’s fair to hope that someone who states that they value something will actually enact that value in practice, even if that’s not necessarily true.
As I age, I’m recognizing more and more that these people – professors with fancy titles, guys who work in humanitarian careers, other folks who seem impressive and/or important based on whatever metric of the moment – are literally just people. I’ve met some who are genuinely generous and kind, who apologize if they make mistakes even to people with less power than them, and who have treated me like a human being worthy of respect and dignity. I have met others who care most about their own reputation and career, who haven’t taken the steps to address their internal issues even if they have the means to do so, and/or who will act one way with their superiors and colleagues and a completely different way with their students.
Growing up as a more feminine person, I sometimes feel compelled to empathize with people even when they mistreat me. Like, he just got out of a breakup, so that’s why he’s acting this way, it’s not him as a person. Or, maybe I should be nicer, maybe this guy is emotionally unavailable because he’s been subjected to racism and homophobia growing up. Or, this professor doesn’t treat me right because of their unresolved family-of-origin issues or because they’re insecure due to racial dynamics in their predominately white department. At the end of the day though, we all have a responsibility not to hurt other people, in particular vulnerable people and people who possess less societal power than us. I’m seeing now the importance of both/and in these situations, that these people have struggled and they still need to practice accountability for their actions. I aspire to practice self-awareness so I can do the same if or when I hurt people.
I started writing this post when I read about bell hooks’s death last week. I saw a quote on Twitter about how it’s important for women to give themselves permission to escape abusive and harmful situations. This quote reminded me of times when people have hurt me and how even though those situations sucked, I still practiced as much agency as I could thanks to having read bell hooks and other feminist writers. Now that I’m getting closer to finishing up my PhD, I’m celebrating the increased independence and agency I’ll soon have in my professional life, as well as ways to keep fighting systems like white supremacy and patriarchy. I’m also continuing to reflect on my own behaviors so that I always minimize the extent to which I myself put other people in harm’s way.
Are there things you used to view in more black and white terms that you now see with more nuance? Or have you grown away from idealizing certain people, things, ideas, etc.? General reactions to this post? I am halfway through internship/residency interviews with some pretty intense ones coming up in January so plz wish me luck! I also have a new crush lolol ugh I’m still attracted to m*n after all these years. Anyway, happy holiday season and until next post!